Groundhog Day, Over and Over Again

I’ve been here at Abhayagiri Buddhist Monastery since the end of
December. Nestled in the hills of Mendocino County California,
the monastery is in the Thai Forest Tradition of Theravada
Buddhism. I’ve been visiting here since 2012, and continue to
return for the community and the abbot, Ajahn Pasanno.

Each year from the beginning of January to April 1st, the
community of monks and lay residents put their regular duties
aside (at least, mostly) and go on silent retreat. During this time, a
crew of volunteers arrives to take over the general duties of the
monastery; cooking, maintenance, office work, book requests,
etc.. I’ve been one of those volunteers for the last three months.
For those that read my blog last year from Tisarana, or my blog
from two years ago, it’s roughly the same scenario. A day in the
life of a retreat support member goes something like this….

Is it really 4AM already?

I crawl out of bed and get ready to start the day with morning
puja in the meditation hall. Since the monastery is located on a
hillside, I walk down the hill from the women’s building and up
and down another hill to reach where I need to go. It’s a ten
minute walk, which helps to add some wakefulness.

I quietly walk into the meditation hall after removing my shoes
outside, set up my seat, and bow to the shrine. It’s not as if I think
the shrine is actually the Buddha. I’m bowing to symbolism of the
awakened mind, the teachings that lead to it, and those who are
on the path.

At 5AM, the puja starts with chanting in Pali (the ancient language
similar to Sanskrit in which the Buddha’s teachings were
recorded) and English for about 20 minutes, then continues for an
hour of mediation. Afterwards I perform my morning chore which
is usually some sort of cleaning and checking messages, until the
bell rings for breakfast. It’s usually oatmeal, with the usual
breakfast beverages.

After breakfast cleanup, my fellow crew members and I start the
day with our appointed tasks.

I’m in the kitchen today, and my job, with two other members, is
to prepare a meal for over thirty people in less than three hours
with whatever food is in the fridge and pantry. All the groceries
are donated, and there’s not always exactly what you want for a
particular recipe. It’s sort of like an episode of “Chopped”: You
have these ingredients. Make something good out of them in a
certain period of time. Thanks to the generosity of many donors,
and the skill of the cooking crew, it’s usually a pretty good meal.

After lunch and cleanup, the retreat schedule has varied,
sometimes with scheduled group afternoon meditation,
sometimes with free time to practice on one’s own.

Today there’s free time, and it’s not cold and raining (surprisingly
it’s been cold and rainy quite frequently, and we’ve even had
snow a few times), so a good time to take a walk. I slowly climb
nearly a thousand feet up to the nearby ridge, to observe the
damage caused by last summer’s fires. The fires came through
and destroyed much of the forests and the nearby town, yet the
monastery was mainly untouched. If you look for the monastery
on Google Earth, there are already updated photos showing the
extent of the damage.

At 6:30pm we meet for a question and answer period, or a
reading, and then evening puja at seven. It’s pretty much the
same as morning puja, with slightly different chanting. After puja
is over, I walk back up the hill to the women’s section, and after
some reading, go to bed to do it again the next day.

The schedule is mostly the same. Every. Single. Day. One looses
track of time: What’s the date? What day of the week is it?

About once a week on lunar observance days we stay up
practicing until 3AM (if we’re not working the next day), and
during the retreat, the crew have regular days off. But the routine,
even though it’s not one I’d necessarily follow at home, is
somehow helpful. The mind comes up with enough things in
meditation (and in general) that provide all the “interesting” one
needs.

I’ve found some peace here, and space to hold what comes up in
life and in the mind. So for now I’ll stay here a while if the
community will allow me to do so, and see where life takes me.

I’ve volunteered to stay to help with the new library here,
something I had hoped two years ago that I’d be able to work on.
It means transferring the books to new shelves, reorganizing them
to a better cataloging system, and eventually entering the Library
of Congress information for all the books into a computer with
library software. No small task, since there are thousands of
books, but one I’ll enjoy working on.

I don’t know how long I’ll be here. I have a trip planned in June
and another in August, and hope to return here between them.
But I’m feeling easier about not having much of a plan, and just
being here now, every day, over and over again.

Be well and peaceful.

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Walking The Big Black Dog

I haven’t written any new posts for a while for a few reasons. The first being that I was
spending time with family during the holidays, and not really doing any blog-worthy,
“touristy” things. Which was just fine.
The second reason was that for most of the time since my last post I was wrapped in a
funk that was tough to shake off. I couldn’t really see the point of writing, or of anything
in general. The things I usually enjoyed held little interest, nor did I have the energy to
take part in them. I walked around feeling like I was wearing one of those lead aprons
you wear during X-rays. Most of the time I spent wanting to stay in bed, curled up in a
ball. While I don’t drink, I could see the appeal. Everything was just…meh.
After I left Tisarana Monastery in Canada, I had a lot of time on my hands to ruminate
over a recent loss and betrayal of friendship. Instead of continuing the work with
feelings that came up, I used the spare time to distract myself: watching movies,
surfing the net, reading, eating tons of holiday sweets, and just hanging out.
I was walking “The big black dog” (as Winston Churchill called it) of depression. I hid it
from my family (although no longer, as they follow this blog) because who wants to be
a downer during the holidays? But there it is.
I also struggled with sharing it with others because there’s this held perception that as
a Buddhist, if someone is “doing well” in their practice, then they won’t have any
depressed thoughts. Like we’re all supposed to be shiny, happy people, 24-7.
It was good to spend time with family and friends though, and it kept me going. Having
people around you who love and support you goes a long way.
I also had the chance to talk with a few Buddhist friends and discovered that they too,
on occasion, had dealt with the same issues – even friends who have practiced for
years. Discovering the shared difficulty and shattering the perception of a “perfect
practitioner” was immensely helpful. I wasn’t alone after all, despite what the mind was
telling me.
At the end of the year, I returned to Abhayagiri Buddhist Monastery to help with the
winter retreat. I’m now on the retreat schedule of increased meditation, and have been
tweaking my practice by including more body awareness, and refraining from investing
in the stories that depression tells the mind (at least sometimes). It does help. I’m
finding that Buddhist practice isn’t a guarantee against depression, but it gives me
great tools to work with it. I’ve also been walking more, doing more yoga practices,
taking vitamin B12, using a SAD light, and ruminating less (mostly).
Also key has been remembering that this is not “me”. It’s a “tropical depression” in the
sky of who “I” am, of time and space. It won’t last forever, and is passing through at its
own speed.

All of the things above have helped, and while I wouldn’t say I’m back to being a
“shiny, happy person” (if that truly exists), the forecast now is fair to partly sunny. I find
myself laughing a bit more often, and am at least more peaceful. I’ll take it for now.
My next post will be about the monastery where I’m staying, and what I’m currently
doing. But for now, I wanted to share what had been going on. I almost didn’t make
this post, but I decided that there’s strength in sorrow shared. If there’s someone out
there that can benefit from knowing that they’re not alone, then it’s worth having
people know I’m not perfect.
Ok, you probably knew that already, but it’s tough to drop the ideal sometimes. Thanks
for bearing with me.
Be well and…peaceful.

Sabbehi me piyehi manāpehi, part two

I’ve returned to Tisarana Buddhist Monastery, located in rural Ontario, Canada. It has been somewhat of a refuge here. While I’ve been interacting with the monastics and guests here to some degree, I’ve had a lot of time on my own. I’m staying in a kuti (a small cabin), and it’s been wonderful to have a bit of privacy and seclusion again. I’m finding I’m enjoying my own company more than I have in the past.

The scenery here has been gorgeous. Changing leaves, fall colors, and amazing sunsets on the nearby lake. I’ve had time to do some walking and kayaking as well as formal meditation practice. I’ve also had time to look at the changing nature of things, and to be more at peace with it. The sun sets and the moon rises, filling the sky with silvery light. The falling leaves make way for spring’s new growth. Change isn’t always a bad thing.

All the things that we find ourselves clinging to, both positive and negative, can change. And we can be better off for it. Sometimes losing what we think is ours, beloved or pleasing can make room for new growth.

So I’ll be here for another month, enjoying the changing season.



Sabbehi me piyehi manāpehi

I don’t always miss you.

Lost in dreamless sleep, I long for nothing and no one.

When I’m busy and focused,

I don’t notice that a part of me is elsewhere, miles and miles away.

When I’m aware

Of the sound of silence, my breath, or the birds in the trees

I’m not drifting, lost, a sail without wind on an endless sea.

But otherwise…

When night approaches quietly, and emptiness creeps in like something slithering,

When memories come crashing in like waves, leaving an ebb of regret,

When the rest of the day goes on,

Your face tugs at the sleeve of my mind

Over and over

Reminding me of all I’ve left behind,

And all that I could lose.

Harnham Buddhist Monastery (Or, “What I did for my summer vacation”

For the last few months I’ve been back at Harnham Monastery, nestled in the gently rolling hills of Northumberland, England. Sheep and cows graze upon green fields, and the sun plays hide and seek between the clouds (mostly hiding). The monastery is smaller in space than other monasteries, and the area around it is quiet (except for the cows and sheep).

I came here to support a friend, but I’ve been supported here in learning much about myself and Buddhist practice. While there were no great bolts of insight, I did see into a few things in a slightly clearer manner.

First was dealing with loneliness. A lot of time to myself initially left me seeking distraction to fill the time alone. Theres not much distraction available at a monastery: No music, no tv, no eating after noon. I started doing a lot of walking. While this helped some (and also helped me lose ten pounds in the process), being with the loneliness, feeling it in the body and offering compassion seemed to help the most. I’m still learning.

It wasn’t all loneliness, and interactions with others became another practice. It’s funny how even platonic relationships can throw a mirror in your face and show you where your rough edges are. Previously unnoticed aspects of yourself and habits are revealed. “Really? Have I been doing that all along?” It’s a process that never ends, I think. 

Also was the realization that there is no ideal time in the future when I’m going to “really get on with my practice”. The time is now, and the practice is happening right now, whether I “really get down to it” or not. At least that’s the feeling I have these days. To paraphrase John Lennon, practice is happening while you’re busy planning your practice.

Yes, there were other lessons as well. Some I’m still processing, some personal, and some that just don’t lend themselves to being blog topics. For as much time as I spent here, I suppose this blog entry is pretty short. Much of what goes on at monasteries doesn’t seem exciting in the standards of the world outside, but I assure you it was time well spent.

So enjoy some of the pictures below, and may your own lessons continue in a beneficial way.

Swan on Bolam Lake



Yup. It’s a hedgehog. Apparently their population is dwindling, so I’m glad I got to meet one up close.


Barley close up
Barley harvesting

Changing Weather, Changing Plans

I’ve just left Tisarana Buddhist Monastery in Perth, Ontario, after finishing the winter retreat period plus another month.

When I arrived, it was a typical Canadian winter. Slowly I watched the icy and snow capped landscape gradually thaw and transform into spring. By the time I left, the lakes had thawed, the trees were budding, and the grass was an electric green.

Which recycling category do raccoons fit in?


Brrrr!

Inukshuk


The retreat itself went well. Perhaps not in a way of deep concentration, but insights nonetheless. When you spend day after day with a handful of people on a regular basis, the experience becomes a giant mirror on your interpersonal habits. How do you respond in a skillful way (hopefully) when someone pushes your buttons? And you also find how you push other people’s buttons as well. How does each situation feel? Where is the suffering? When all our usual distractions are removed, habits become more obvious. 

For example, while I love alone time, if I’m around other people, there’s a tendency for me to talk. Sometimes a lot. I was able to look at this and see where it came from, and when it causes difficulty. Am I now quiet and reserved? Hardly. But there is at least a new awareness around it. And also an awareness that it’s not always a bad thing in some situations, and not necessarily a problem unless I make it one. So there’s a bit of acceptance as well. I’m willing to call it progress.

Amidst all this personal work was time making new friendships and strengthening old ones. The community of monks and lay people here is quite a warm, welcoming group, and one I feel comfortable returning to.

It’s a long story, but tonight I’m headed back to England to Harnham Monastery, which I visited last year. I’ll still have limited internet, but will try to post again from there.

Be well and happy, dear readers!

Winter Retreat at Tisarana Buddhist Monastery, Ontario CA

Morning time, and all is quiet, except for the sound of my boots, crunching through the snow.Wind blows cold, making the -14C (10F) seem much colder. It seeps through my thin cotton pants, reminding me that another bottom layer would have been a good idea.

Oh well.

I choose a quiet road, where no vehicles have been since last night’s snow. The animals have been busy here however, and I see footprints of deer, rabbits, foxes and coyotes. Snow still covers the branches of the trees, unmelted as of yet by a sun that’s shining through a thick curtain of clouds.

I reach a nearby lake, still frozen to some degree, but not enough for me to comfortably test. I stop to enjoy the immensity of the frozen form, the enticing islands in the middle of it. To enjoy the quiet. The vastness.


Walking back, I hear a conversation between two old trees, creaking and moaning as they sway in the wind. 

“Oh, my joints ache” 

“Oh, me too. And my lumbago is acting up: I got no rest last night!”

“Yes, I heard you groaning all night”

I return to the monastery, where the guests stay in a beautiful old farmhouse. It’s my quiet day, on which I have no responsibilities, other than to take time to be present and enjoy the space, and spend time with the mind.

The six of us here have the pleasant task of keeping the monastery running while the monastics and long term lay residents are on retreat. It’s not an onerous job by any means, and we have plenty of quiet time as well. It’s a lovely bunch of people to be with, and a wonderful, peaceful place. 
**Just as a side note, there is very limited internet time here, so I’m not following blogs while I’m here. So if I haven’t “liked” or commented on your posts lately, it’s not personal. I’ll be back into the blogging world in May. Maybe.